Spring Break Teen Tragedy: How Safe Are Your Children?

A promising teenage football player dies after fall from hotel balcony.

April 05, 2010, 8:31 AM

April 5, 2010— -- The 17-year-old high school offensive lineman who was heading to play for Notre Dame next year was intoxicated and "pretty belligerent" prior to falling to his death from a hotel balcony, deputy police chief Major David Humphreys said today, raising questions about spring break safety.

Matt James was a standout high school football player from Cincinnati who fell from a fifth-floor hotel balcony in Panama City, Fla.

"The people in the room next to him were trying to help calm him down from a state of belligerence. He leaned over the balcony rail and in just a matter of seconds as he was leaning over to shake his finger at these people and talk to them he just went over the side," Humphreys said.

Humphreys could not comment on how intoxicated James was until the autopsy report is released, but said "according to the witnesses, many of them his friends, he was to the point where he was pretty belligerent and broke some things in the hotel room just prior to the fall."

No one in the group has been "forthcoming" with how the teens got the alcohol, Humphreys said.

"Certainly if someone was to provide a minor with alcohol, obviously it leading to a tragic event like this, [pressing charges] is certainly a possibility," Humphreys said.

James was with a group of about 40 young people and six parents, according to The Associated Press.

At the time of James' death the exact location of each chaperone is unknown, Humphreys said, but several were at the hotel but not in the room with James.

ABC News was unable to contact any of the chaperones in James' group.

James' accident was the fourth balcony fall this year in the Panama City Beach area and the second fatality.

Brandon Kohler, 19, from Winder, Ga., died when he plunged from a different hotel balcony on March 24. Alcohol was also involved in that accident, according to Kohler's friends.

Where is the Spring Break Supervision?

During spring break thousands of young people, many of them minors, descent on beach towns like Panama City to party. But year after year the same question arises, where are the adults?

"I think it is a perfect storm because you have a group of kids who feel they're almost adults, they're going to be going off to college soon, and therefore they need less supervision. Parents feel that way. And unfortunately the adults who are supposed to be supervising them are fooled as well by how mature looking these teenagers are. Unfortunately they still are immature," Dr. Harold Koplewicz, president of the child Study Center Foundation, said.

When deciding whether to allow your child to go away on spring break one child psychologist told ABC News that parents should know whether their children can handle the temptation of spring break. If they can't, then the children shouldn't be going away even with adult supervision.

But when asked how the police could have prevented an accident like James, Humphreys said he wasn't sure there was anything that could have been done.

"You know in this case, you talk about how to get a handle on this, but in this case the young man was on the balcony with his friends there was no indication that he was in any distress as far as falling off a balcony… I don't know if you were standing right there could you have done anything to prevent it," Humphreys said.

Over the weekend grief-stricken classmates gathered on the St. Xavier high school football field in Cincinnati to remember their friend and posted a video tribute on James' Facebook page.

"He was nice as could be. Always had a smile on his face, bright, funny kid, and he always had a kind word for everybody," Mark Motz, director communications at St. Xavier high school, said.

Saturday evening James' family released a statement asking for privacy.

"We would like to thank everyone for their prayers and support during this tragic time, particularly the family at St. X," Jerry and Peggy James said in a statement, according to the AP. "Matt was a very special young man, and it is gratifying to us that you all could see that as well. We are touched by this outpouring of love."

James had originally agreed to play football for the University of Cincinnati with coach Brian Kelly. But when Kelly decided to move to Notre Dame so did James, the AP reported.

"The Notre Dame football program is in a state of disbelief and incredible sadness with the news of this tragic event," Kelly said in a statement, according to the AP. "Matt was an extremely talented person who was very bright and possessed a great dry sense of humor. He could not wait to join the Notre Dame family."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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